Archive for January 6, 2016


January 03, 2016

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Protesters in Iran, angered by the execution by Saudi Arabia of a prominent Shiite cleric, broke into the Saudi embassy in Tehran early Sunday, setting fires and throwing papers from the roof, Iranian media reported.

The semiofficial ISNA news agency said the country’s top police official, Gen. Hossein Sajedinia, rushed to the scene and police worked to disperse the crowd outraged by the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Shiite leaders in Iran and elsewhere across the Middle East swiftly condemned Riyadh and warned of a sectarian backlash.

Saudi Arabia’s execution Saturday of 47 prisoners, which also included al-Qaida detainees, threatened to further inflame Sunni-Shiite tensions in a regional struggle playing out between the Sunni kingdom and its foe Iran, a predominantly Shiite nation.

While Saudi Arabia insisted the executions were part of a justified war on terrorism, Iranian politicians warned that the Saudi monarchy would pay a heavy price for the death of al-Nimr. The Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the Saudi envoy in Tehran to protest, while the Saudi Foreign Ministry later said it had summoned Iran’s envoy to the kingdom to protest the critical Iranian reaction to the sheikh’s execution, saying it represented “blatant interference” in its internal affairs.

In Tehran, the crowd gathered outside the Saudi embassy and chanted anti-Saudi slogans. Some protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the embassy, setting off a fire in part of the building, Sajedinia told the semi-official Tasnim news agency.

“Some of them entered the embassy. Currently, individuals who entered the embassy have been transferred out (of the building). However, a large crowd is still there in front of the embassy,” Sajedinia told ISNA early Sunday.

Some of the protesters broke into the embassy and threw papers off the roof, and police worked to disperse the crowd, Sajedinia told ISNA. He later told Tasnim that police had removed the protesters from the building and arrested some of them. He said the situation outside the embassy “had been defused.”

Al-Nimr’s execution promises to open a rancorous new chapter in the ongoing Sunni-Shiite power struggle playing out across the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia and Iran as the primary antagonists. The two regional powers already back opposing sides in civil wars in Yemen and in Syria. Saudi Arabia was also a vocal critic of the recent Iranian agreement with world powers that ends international economic sanctions in exchange for limits on the Iranian nuclear program.

The cleric’s execution could also complicate Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the Shiite-led government in Iraq. The Saudi embassy in Baghdad reopened for the first time in nearly 25 years on Friday. Already on Saturday there were public calls for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to shut the embassy down again.

Al-Abadi tweeted Saturday night that he was “shocked and saddened” by al-Nimr’s execution, adding that, “peaceful opposition is a fundamental right. Repression does not last.” Hundreds of al-Nimr’s supporters also protested in his hometown of al-Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia, in neighboring Bahrain where police fired tear gas and bird shot, and as far away as northern India.

The sheikh’s brother, Mohammed al-Nimr, said in a telephone interview that Saudi authorities told the family they had already buried the body, but didn’t tell them at which cemetery. The family had hoped to bury his body in his hometown. His funeral would likely have attracted thousands of supporters, including large numbers of protesters. Instead the family planned to hold prayers and accept condolences at the mosque in a village near al-Qatif, where the sheikh used to pray.

A spokesman said in a statement that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was “deeply dismayed” over the Saudi Arabia executions, including that of Al-Nimr. Germany’s Foreign Ministry said the cleric’s execution “strengthens our existing concerns about the growing tensions and the deepening rifts in the region.”

State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement that the U.S. is “particularly concerned” that al-Nimr’s execution risked “exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced.” He said the U.S. is calling on Saudi Arabia to ensure fair judicial proceedings and permit peaceful expression of dissent while working with all community leaders to defuse tensions after the executions.

Al-Nimr’s death comes 11 months after Saudi Arabia issued a sweeping counterterrorism law after Arab Spring protests shook the region in 2011 and toppled several longtime autocrats. The law codified that the kingdom could prosecute as a terrorist anyone who demands reform, exposes corruption or otherwise engages in dissent or violence against the government.

The convictions of those executed Saturday were issued by Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court, established in 2008 to try terrorism cases. The executed al-Qaida detainees were convicted of launching a spate of attacks against foreigners and security forces a decade ago.

To counter Arab Spring rumblings that threatened to spill into eastern Saudi Arabia, the kingdom sent troops in 2011 to crush Shiite protests demanding more political powers from the Sunni-led, fraternal monarchy of Bahrain. More security forces were also deployed that year to contain protests in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich east, where al-Nimr rallied youth who felt disenfranchised and persecuted.

A Saudi lawyer in the eastern region told The Associated Press that three other Shiite political detainees were also executed from among the 47. The lawyer spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

Saudi Arabia says all those executed were convicted of acts of terrorism. Al-Nimr and the three others mentioned had been charged in connection with violence that led to the deaths of several protesters and police officers.

Saudi Arabia’s top cleric Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Sheikh defended the executions as in line with Islamic Shariah law. He described the executions as a “mercy to the prisoners” because it would save them from committing more evil acts and prevent chaos.

Islamic scholars around the world hold vastly different views on the application of the death penalty in Shariah law. Saudi Arabia’s judiciary adheres to one of the strictest interpretations, a Sunni Muslim ideology referred to as Wahhabism.

Saudi Arabia carries out most executions through beheading and sometimes in public and has drawn comparisons to extremist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State group — which also carry out public beheadings and claim to be implementing Shariah. It strongly rejects the comparisons and points out that it has a judicial appeals process with executions ultimately aimed at combating crime.

The Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah issued a statement calling al-Nimr’s execution an “assassination” and a “ugly crime.” The group added that those who carry the “moral and direct responsibility for this crime are the United States and its allies who give direct protection to the Saudi regime.”

In a press conference Saturday, Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki said the executions were carried out inside prisons and not in public, as is sometimes the case. The Interior Ministry, which announced the names of all 47 people executed in a statement, said a royal court order was issued to implement the sentences after all appeals had been exhausted.

Meanwhile, the execution of al-Qaida militants raised concerns over revenge attacks. The extremist group’s branch in Yemen, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, had threatened violence against Saudi security forces last month if they carried out executions of its fighters.

One of the executed was Faris al-Shuwail, a leading ideologue in al-Qaida’s Saudi branch who was arrested in August 2004 during a massive crackdown on the group following the series of deadly attacks.

The executions took place in the capital, Riyadh, and 12 other cities and towns. Of those executed, 45 were Saudi citizens, one was from Chad and another was from Egypt. In announcing the verdicts, Saudi state television showed mugshots of those executed. Al-Nimr was No. 46, expressionless with a gray beard, his head covered with the red-and-white scarf traditionally worn by men in the Arab Gulf region.

Al-Nimr, who was in his 50s, never denied the political charges against him, but maintained he never carried weapons or called for violence. At his trial, he was asked if he disapproved of the Al Saud ruling family because of speeches in which he spoke out forcefully against former Interior Minister and late Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdelaziz, who is King Salman’s elder brother.

“If injustice stops against Shiites in the east, then (at that point) I can have a different opinion,” the cleric responded, according to his brother, who attended court sessions and spoke to The Associated Press just days before the Oct. 2014 verdict.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director Sarah Leah said “regardless of the crimes allegedly committed, executing prisoners in mass only further stains Saudi Arabia’s troubling human rights record.” She said al-Nimr was convicted in an “unfair” trial and that his execution “is only adding to the existing sectarian discord and unrest.”

Al-Nimr’s brother told the AP by telephone that the executions came as a “big shock” because “we thought the authorities could adopt a political approach to settle matters without bloodshed.” He urged people to “adopt peaceful means when expressing their anger.”

Saudi Arabia carried out at least 157 executions in 2015, with beheadings reaching their highest level in the kingdom in two decades, according to human rights groups.

Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Abdullah al-Shihri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Jon Gambrell in Dubai, Maamoun Youssef in Cairo, Reem Khalifa in Manama, Bahrain, Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

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January 03, 2016

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s top leader on Sunday warned Saudi Arabia of “divine revenge” over the execution of an opposition Shiite cleric while Riyadh accused Tehran of supporting terrorism, escalating a war of words hours after protesters stormed the Saudi Embassy in Tehran.

Saudi Arabia announced the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday along with 46 others, including three other Shiite dissidents and a number of al-Qaida militants. Al-Nimr was a central figure in protests by Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority until his arrest in 2012, and his execution drew condemnation from Shiites across the region.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei condemned the execution Sunday in a statement on his website, saying al-Nimr “neither invited people to take up arms nor hatched covert plots. The only thing he did was public criticism.” Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard said Saudi Arabia’s “medieval act of savagery” in executing the cleric would lead to the “downfall” of the country’s monarchy.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry said that by condemning the execution, Iran had “revealed its true face represented in support for terrorism.” The statement, carried by the official Saudi Press Agency, accused Tehran of “blind sectarianism” and said that “by its defense of terrorist acts” Iran is a “partner in their crimes in the entire region.”

Al-Nimr was convicted of terrorism charges but denied ever advocating violence. Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran are locked in a bitter rivalry, and support opposite sides in the wars in Syria and Yemen. Iran accuses Saudi Arabia of supporting “terrorism” in part because it backs Syrian rebel groups, while Riyadh points to Iran’s support for the Lebanese Hezbollah and other Shiite militant groups in the region.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry has summoned the Saudi envoy in Tehran to protest, while the Saudi Foreign Ministry later said it had summoned Iran’s envoy to the kingdom to protest Iran’s criticism of the execution, saying it represented “blatant interference” in its internal affairs.

In Tehran, the crowd gathered outside the Saudi Embassy early Sunday and chanted anti-Saudi slogans. Some protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the embassy, setting off a fire in part of the building, said the country’s top police official, Gen. Hossein Sajedinia, according to the semiofficial Tasnim news agency. He later said police had removed the protesters from the building and arrested some of them, adding that the situation had been “defused.”

Hours later, Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi said 40 people had been arrested on suspicion of taking part in the embassy attack and investigators were pursuing other suspects, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency.

The cleric’s execution could also complicate Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the Shiite-led government in Iraq. The Saudi Embassy in Baghdad reopened for the first time in nearly 25 years on Friday. Already on Saturday there were public calls for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to shut the embassy down again.

Al-Abadi tweeted Saturday night that he was “shocked and saddened” by al-Nimr’s execution, adding that “peaceful opposition is a fundamental right. Repression does not last.” Hundreds of al-Nimr’s supporters also protested in his hometown of al-Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia, in neighboring Bahrain where police fired tear gas and bird shot, and as far away as northern India.

Also Sunday, the BBC reported that one of the 47 executed in Saudi Arabia, Adel al-Dhubaiti, was convicted over a 2004 attack on its journalists in Riyadh. That attack by a gang outside of the home of a suspected al-Qaida militant killed 36-year-old Irish cameraman Simon Cumbers. British reporter Frank Gardner, now the BBC’s security correspondent, was seriously wounded in the attack and paralyzed, but survived.

Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Joseph Krauss and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.

December 31, 2015

When she was 16, Rana Abdelhamid was accosted on the streets of New York by a man who tried to pull off the head scarf she wears as a symbol of her commitment to her Muslim faith.

Rather than withdraw, as she’d seen other Muslim women do, she turned her anger into a program that is now working with young Muslim women to teach them self-defense while encouraging them to become leaders and role models for others in their communities.

Abdelhamid, a graduate of Vermont’s Middlebury College who is now a student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, says the challenge facing Muslims in general and Muslim women in particular has been getting worse, especially since the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s becoming more needed and we’re getting so many calls,” said Abdelhamid, 22, who grew up in the Queens borough of New York. Robina Niaz, the executive director of the group Turning Point for Women and Families, an organization that works to end domestic violence in New York’s Muslim community, said she first met Abdelhamid when she was in high school and participating in programs at the center.

“Rana is a living example of what one can accomplish when we invest in these young girls,” Niaz said. “If we believe in them, if we support them, watch their back — they need just a little bit of nudging and mentoring and they are ready.”

Muslim women in several cities across the country are organizing or taking self-defense classes, but Abdelhamid’s organization, the Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment, or WISE, goes beyond the physical self-defense skills to encourage the young women to become leaders and social entrepreneurs. The empowerment lessons can be as simple as showing the young women how to rent or reserve a room in a community center to tips on becoming a confident public speaker.

Abdelhamid said her efforts have not been universally well received by the Muslim community. “We have had some challenges and pushback from more traditionalist members of our community who don’t necessarily see space for women in leadership, unfortunately,” she said. “It’s really, really disheartening because you want your allies to be within the community.”

The program has grown since the first class was offered to about a dozen girls in the basement of a community center in Brooklyn. The basic program, called Mentee Muslimah (an Arabic word for Muslim women), is a 13-session summer camp attended in New York by about 50 young women of high-school age that follows a 100-page course outline Abdelhamid developed during an independent study course at Middlebury.

The organization relies heavily on donated space and volunteers, but it’s also received donations and in some cases fees are charged to people taking the program to help defray expenses. She’s in the process of setting up a formal non-profit group so WISE can have a permanent home and a budget. While an undergraduate at Vermont’s Middlebury College, Abdelhamid used a grant from the school’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship to expand her organization.

“What makes Rana really unique that we saw in her is that this is an issue that is connected to her identity and it drives her all the time,” said Heather Neuwirth, the associate director of Middlebury’s Entrepreneurship Center. “She took what could have been an experience that could have shut her down, she really realized the power in that and I think the way that she connects to others is deeply caring.”

Abdelhamid sometimes travels to lead programs outside New York, but most are led by people who have taken the program and then been trained to teach it. The summer programs outside New York are held in Union City, New Jersey, Washington, Dallas, Madrid, and Edinburg, Scotland. She’s working on setting up programs in Chicago, Dublin and Istanbul. Next month WISE also is planning a three-day program in Boston for Jewish women.

Nitasha Siddique, a 19-year-old student at Princeton, said she got involved with WISE after her junior year in high school when she was accepted into the New York summer programs. “There were a lot of really important conversations I’d never had before, but had the opportunity to have these conversations and have them with a group of girls who were close to me in age,” she said.